I have no recollection of being told Mom was bipolar. Maybe I got curious one day about the pile of prescription bottles on her bathroom counter, the word “lithium” on one of the labels before I knew what lithium was. By the time I found out, the dots connected in staggered, breathless shifts. For the most part, my mother’s pain was kept behind doors, only slightly cracked open. Dad always kissed Mom in front of us, we danced, and there was never any Yelling.
One day, my three siblings and I were in the living room, banging on pots and pans, dancing to Shania Twain, when I started to smell the sadness. Quietly, I slipped out to find Mom. Making my way down the hallway, my chubby feet pitter-pattering along the tiled floor, my tutu swaying, I looked through the crack in her bedroom door, and found her crying. Slowly, I pushed it open, climbed onto her bed, and curled into a ball on her lap. I stroked her hands as my scalp collected her tears. I didn’t know it then, but I developed my sixth sense before I could tie my shoes.
For our sake, Mom was sneaky, so I got a lot of practice using my sixth sense, feeling for her sadness. By the time I was a teenager, I could detect someone’s sadness so well, I could smell it before they did. In a single conversation, I could jump inside of them, find it and pull it out, sometimes wreaking havoc in the process. But by the end of it, instead of hating me, they’d have fallen in love. People love to feel seen, heard, and I loved to feel needed.
Among the people that most needed me was Gabriel, a half-Italian, half-Brazilian man with rain puddles for eyes, and a fierce desire to be known. Gabriel also had a sixth sense. He could find people who could smell his sadness, and be there for him, so we fit together well. Now I know, like the lithium my mother depended upon to quell her sadness, I needed Gabriel to quell my need to be needed… now I know, it’s called co-dependency.
It worked for a while. We’d sit real close to each other on my bed, and I’d be a rock disguised as water, flowing around him and catching the tears as they fell, storing them inside me to balance the weight between us. By the end of the night, he’d be the glass half-empty of his sadness, and I’d be the glass, now full from the weight of his sorrow. He’d put both hands on my cheeks, kiss my lifeless lips the soft way I loved and say, “Thank you.” My eyes would sparkle wildly for a moment, before looking to the ground.
Even in my exhaustion, I kept it up. But my approach started to change. Instead of sitting quietly while he poured into me, I decided that he wouldn’t feel sad anymore if I just worked hard enough to teach him how to change. So, I’d run my mouth, and he’d listen with a furrowed brow, putting in genuine effort to understand my amateur psychoanalysis. But eventually, he started catching on, seeing my help as an intrusion. Sitting on my bed one night, he interrupted me for the first time. “Will you, for once, stop putting words in my mouth?” he said through gritted teeth. “I don’t need saving.”
It knocked the wind out of me. I sat stunned. And relieved. When I looked down at my hands, folded over his, I was suddenly back in my mother’s room at three years old. I imagined his words coming from her mouth. She didn’t need saving. I imagined her picking me up out of her lap, putting me on the ground, and telling me to go back to my sisters in the living room. And me, kissing her hands, closing the door behind me, and running back down the hallway to dance.